Thank you so much for your patience. I want to make sure you guys know I'm definitely not giving up on this story or Hot Chocolate (for those who read that.) Sometimes it might take me a little longer than preferred for me to update because not only does work keep me busy and I have friends and family I spend time with, but I also want to be sure that the chapters I post are just right, and that I'm telling the story I want to. Thank you for the encouragement and support, especially with my grandfather.

Sassy, more and more thanks for everything, dartling! ;-D


Chapter 17: Roads Go Ever Ever On

Nothing could've stopped the grin from spreading across James' face upon awakening the next morning. His nose was buried in Snow's hair, her body curled into his side, his arms wrapped around her, her face pressed into his shoulder. How he had missed this, simply being able to fall asleep and wake up beside the woman he loved. His arms tightened around Snow, pulling her even closer and watching her lips curve upward, burrowing deeper into his embrace. James' grin widened as he kissed the top of his love's curls, settling back into the bedding to sleep for a bit longer.

But the second his eyes closed there was a light tapping on the door. He inwardly cursed whoever was on the other side.

With the utmost care, the prince disentangled himself from his and Snow's mutually tight embrace, trying not to wake her, knowing how desperately she needed the sleep. His unconscious princess moaned and grumbled her displeasure at his leaving her. Standing beside the bed, feet planted on the icy floor, he pulled the covers up over her form, still only clad in his shirt; Snow frowned as she was tucked in, obviously not satisfied by the substitute for his warmth and comfort.

James glanced around for a shirt or perhaps a robe to don in addition to the breeches that he still wore, but he hadn't had the opportunity to see where his few personal items from the saddlebags had been placed the night before. Another knock sounded at the door, more insistently this time, and rather than risk the person on the other side waking Snow, he decided the lesser evil was to answer it shirtless.

Red raised a predictably sarcastic and surprised eyebrow as her eyes swept up and down his half-naked body. "Well I can certainly see why Snow found you so hard to resist," she commented in a low voice.

James had relaxed as soon as he saw who it was, thankful for the more detached appreciation and purely platonic look in the woman's gaze, glad that she had no interest in him. He rolled his eyes, arms crossing over his bare chest with an expression akin to a tolerant older brother. "Yes, Red?"

A smirk briefly tilted her mouth before she extended to him a bundle he hadn't noticed until that moment. "This is a dress, undergarments and shoes for Snow."

James wondered if he should be surprised at the sudden lack of judgment or wrath in her gaze that'd been so prominent when she'd walked in on them in Lochdubh. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, he wasn't. "Thank you."

Red clasped her hands in front of her. "I mussed her bedding and will tell Lucy, Snow's maid, that she was up and about before she arrived."

Unable to really think of anything else to say, he thanked her again.

Now she held out a steaming bucket that had also escaped his notice on the floor beside her. "Hot water," she elaborated, garnering another "thank you." "It's an hour before sunrise, Snow should be out and about shortly."

He got the message loud and clear. "Understood."

Red nodded sharply and turned on her heel to head down the hall.

"Red," James called after her as loudly as he dared, she turned back. "You've been very...accepting of Snow and I being together like this since I arrived yesterday. Why?"

"Because she needs you," she answered simply.

And, he realized, for her it truly was that simple. The woman she considered her sister needed him and that trumped any misgivings she might have about the physical aspect of their relationship. He inclined his head, a gesture of respect. "Thank you." He hoped she understood he was thanking her for so much more than just giving him an answer.

She gazed at him thoughtfully and then dropped in a curtsey that was devoid of her usual sass, instead imbued with mutual respect. "Thank you." Once she straightened again her eyes cut to the room for a moment before meeting his again. "Help her."

"Always," he swore.

She nodded, accepting his pledge, then she once again turned and made her way toward the stairs to the main hall.

James watched Red until she rounded the corner, then stepped back into his room, closing the door behind him. His gaze went to the bed, a grin lighting his face at the vision before him. The covers were again rumpled from Snow's tossing and turning, she now lay on her back, one hand resting on her stomach, the other curled lightly by her temple. She looked achingly young, bedding twisted around her waist, his too-large shirt nearly swallowing her up and one of the sleeves covering her hand almost to the fingertips.

He set the bundle down atop the trunk at the foot of the bed and the bucket on the floor beside it en route to the bed. The prince settled himself on the edge of the mattress beside his love, just watching her sleep for a few moments, enjoying the sight of Snow in repose. After a few minutes he knew that he couldn't delay waking her any longer if they wanted to be able to take their time in cleaning up and dressing. Of course that didn't mean he couldn't wake her up in a mutually enjoyable way.

Bracing a hand on either side of her on the mattress, he lowered his head to hers, lips pressing to her ruby red ones. At first she responded to him instinctively, without waking, but slowly she was drawn from the land of dreams. Her eyelashes fluttered against his cheek and her lips curved into a smile under his, hands rising to cradle his face between them.

After several pleasurable moments, James lifted his head enough so that he could look down at her properly. Snow's eyes were still closed, a blissful smile on her face.

"I could get used to waking up like this." Jade eyes fluttered open, meeting blue, her fingers ran down his cheek, the overnight stubble rasping against her skin. "Good morning."

He grinned broadly at the dark-haired beauty beneath him. "Morning." He lowered himself to rest above her, elbows braced on either side of her to keep most of his weight off of her. "Red was just here. She dropped off clothing for you and water for us to wash up."

Snow tensed slightly in his arms. "What did she say?"

He pressed a soothing kiss to her forehead. "Just that she alibied you to your maid, but you should be out of my room before anyone else is awake."

She watched her palms run up and down his chest, a gesture that she seemed to be using to reassure herself he was really there more than anything sexual. "I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised with her acceptance." Her eyes lifted to his. "She was the one who told me where your room was," she explained at his questioning gaze.

James shifted most of his weight onto one elbow, his other hand playing with the ends of her hair. "She's been very worried about you." His gaze met hers. "Whatever the reason," his head dipped down to kiss her before lifting again, "I'm glad she told you."

Snow grinned. "Me too."

His expression became solemn. "What needs to be done today?"

The happiness dissipated, replaced with sorrow; she rubbed her hand over her face, remembering…it was akin to waking from one of the most wonderful dreams into a terrible nightmare. "It feels like an endless list," she murmured.

He brushed the hair from her face. "Well, I'm here." Emerald eyes locked on his. "I'll do whatever I can to help."

Grief still lingered in her eyes but a smile spread across her face, her hands rising to cradle his cheeks and drawing him down for a loving kiss. "Thank you."


Hannah removed the pot of oatmeal from the stove, grumbling under her breath over being contradicted in her own domain. Reddell had shown up in the kitchen and insisted the cook have oatmeal ready for Snow when they'd hardly been able to get her to eat a few slices of fruit and toast for several weeks now. Still muttering her annoyance under her breath, the head cook pulled out several pieces of fruit to slice up; in the process she didn't hear the door open.

"Good morning, Hannah."

The cook spun around with a startled yelp, eyebrows shooting up in surprise once she saw the person addressing her. "Snow!" Hannah pressed a hand over her heart, attempting to still the pounding. "Goddess, child, you gave me a fright." What on Earth brought about this change?! she silently wondered. Weeks of her princess being withdrawn, worried and listless, and suddenly here Snow was seeming more herself than she'd been for so long.

An apologetic smile lifted her lips. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

Hannah took a steadying breath. "It's all right." After another breath she turned back to the counter. "What might I do for you, milady?"

The princess lowered herself into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "I was wondering if I might have a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee, if it isn't too much trouble."

The older woman went still for a moment, having to force herself not to turn and stare at Snow. "I just made a pot of oatmeal and the hot water is boiling for the coffee." Finally composed enough that she trusted herself to turn to the dark-haired princess, Hannah set the knife she was holding down again and moved to the pot. "I'll dish you out a bowl."

Snow was already moving to the aforementioned item. "It's all right, I don't want to keep you from your preparations. I can serve myself."

Hannah reluctantly relinquished the serving spoon to the princess, returning to her position at the cutting board. Out of the corner of her eye she continued to observe Snow, surprised but glad to see the healthy helping the young woman dished for herself.

"Would you ladies mind the company of a gentleman for breakfast?"

To say that Snow's face lit up at the sight of Prince James, who was standing in the doorway, would be a supreme understatement. Love and joy radiated from her and his expression was just as alight as he looked upon her.

Hannah, of course, had known the prince had arrived yesterday, but with Snow's restlessness at dinner the cook had thought that perhaps Red's hopes that James could help might have been set too high. Now...now part of Hannah was beyond scandalized to think what might have happened last night to have caused such an about-face in Snow's attitude. But most of her was more than willing to conveniently ignore those suspicions and simply be grateful for having her princess more or less back to her old self.

"I suppose we could find room for you at the table," Snow teased. It wasn't on par with her usual witty repartee, but at least she was joking around a bit, and this eased almost all of the residual tension from the cook's shoulders.

With a chuckle, James gave her a slightly mocking bow as he made his way to her side. "Well, how kind of you."

"I know," she said as she reached into the cabinet for a second bowl, her impish grin nearly back to its normal brilliance.

Now standing beside Snow, he gently brushed a stray lock of hair over her shoulder.

Hannah's eyebrows shot into her hairline at the gesture, a very intimate action for an unengaged couple. She knew her princess too well not to have recognized her growing feelings for the Seaborn heir when he visited the prior spring, and of course, like most of the staff, had heard the stories and rumors of the pair's meetings since. All were expecting their engagement to be announced in the near future. But the highly conservative cook fervently hoped that the couple was more guarded with their affection around others.

James finally tore his gaze from Snow and turned to Hannah, forcing himself to clasp his hands behind his back, away from his love, keenly aware of the cook's disapproval of his familiarity with touching her mistress. "Hannah, it is good to see you again."

The matronly woman cocked an eyebrow at him. "Mm hmm..."

He was caught between bursting out laughing and squirming like a naughty child caught in the act. He cleared his throat, turning his attention to the kettle as it began emitting a long whistle, removing it from the burner and pouring the boiling water into the coffee press. A glance at Snow showed that she was biting down on her lip, trying to hold back laughter.

"How is it she always makes me feel like a misbehaving child?" he muttered low enough that only she heard.

"She makes everyone feel like a poorly behaved child," she whispered back, laughter thick in her tone.

"Uh huh." He smirked, lifting the two mugs he'd taken from the cabinet in one hand and the coffee press in the other, then carrying them to the table. Snow followed behind him with the pair of bowls she'd dished out for them.

They seated themselves; James pushed the plunger down for the press and poured them each a cup. Once settled, they began passing spices and other additives for their coffees and breakfasts to each other.

Snow hadn't realized how hungry she was until the first bite; for several moments her attention was fixed completely on her meal.

James met Hannah's gaze, sharing equally relieved looks at the return of the princess' appetite.

After a couple of minutes he turned to his love. "You said you have a lot to do today?"

She nodded, draining the last of her coffee and pouring herself a second cup. "The guests who will be staying until after the funeral will be arriving today. I also have a great deal of paperwork that needs going over before the mourning period begins and a meeting with a few nobles this afternoon."

"Can I help you with any of that?"

Amusement lifted her lips. "If you don't mind going over rather boring agricultural reports?"


Snow groaned, rubbing her temple in an attempt to ease the throbbing there.

James looked up from the reports, making a mental note to ask Snow if she and her father would consider renegotiating their trade agreement with the crops being particularly plentiful, frowning with concern at her actions. "What is it?"

"I don't know a word of Arabic and the Sultan's grasp of English leaves something to be desired," she said wryly.

He chuckled. "Yes, I've frequently wondered why he doesn't just have Jasmine handle his English speaking correspondences. Her mother made sure she was natively fluent in it and not just Arabic."

Snow was squinting at the barely legible scribbles of broken English. "Her mother knew English?"

"It was her native language."

His princess' head shot up, eyebrows high on her forehead with surprise. "She wasn't from Agrabah?"

"No." James had to push down his own surprise at her ignorance, reminding himself that she hadn't had much contact with other royals outside her small group of friends. "She was the daughter of a noble from Glenbriar."

She frowned thoughtfully for a moment. "I think I remember Aurora mentioning a distant relation having married into the Agrabahan royal family."

"Her name was Lila. Apparently Sultan was in Glenbriar for a visit and met her at a ball, and according to him he fell instantly in love. Though Jasmine told me that her mother used to say that the language barrier made his courtship of Lila, who only spoke English at the time...interesting."

Snow laughed at the image conjured in her mind. "I imagine so." She glanced back at the letter in front of her. "So, do you and your father have this much trouble deciphering Sultan's correspondences?"

He gave her a wry grin. "Actually I know Arabic so Sultan writes to us in that. Father has been having me deal with his writing for years."

Her eyebrows shot up. "You know Arabic?"

He shrugged. "After you have Jasmine spit profanity at you a few times, you kind of want to know what the hell she's calling you. She makes fun of my accent and pronunciation, though." James grinned self-deprecatingly." According to her just because I know how to speak it doesn't mean I should. I sound pretty bad."

An equally amused smile spread across her face. "You'll have to teach me at least a little before I meet them."

He grinned back at her. "We can definitely arrange that."

There was a polite knock on the door, to which Snow called for them to enter.

The door opened to reveal Doc, who nodded to them both respectfully. "I'm sorry to intrude, but King Leopold requests to see you, Prince James." The wise dwarf's eyes went to Snow as she moved as though to rise with her beloved. "He asked that it be alone."

The princess' expression revealed her discomfort with the idea of her fiancé-to-be having to deal with her father, who had already rejected him once before without really giving him a chance, alone.

James reached across the table to squeeze her hand reassuringly. "It'll be fine." He gave her a half-grin. "I doubt he's going to demand swords at dawn with seconds."

She forced a smile but obviously wasn't overly comforted by his attempt at a joke.

He gave her hand one last squeeze and nodded before standing and following Doc.

Snow stared at the closed door for several moments after they left, worry plain on her face.


James would be lying if he said he wasn't nervous about Snow's father calling for him. He certainly had no desire to get into an argument with the man, especially with how ill Leopold had been and how weak he still was, but the prince also had no intention of leaving when Snow needed him here.

Doc perfunctorily knocked on the door to what James assumed to be the king's quarters, opening it carefully and checking inside to make sure Leopold wasn't asleep. Upon reassuring himself that the ailing monarch was still awake, he allowed the young man into the room.

As much as he'd been prepared to face the weakened king James was still caught off guard by the reality of how much the pneumonia had ravaged him. There was hardly an ounce of color in his face, the skin under his eyes was nearly black, his cheeks were sunken and it looked as if just a breath of wind would blow him away.

"Prince James," his voice was thin and reedy, unrecognizable as that of his jovial host last spring, or the man who'd resolutely refused the prince's suit of his daughter just a few short months ago, "thank you for coming." The king's gaze turned to Doc. "Please, leave us. I'll have Prince James send for you if I feel weak."

The physician bowed and reluctantly left his patient with the prince.

"Please," Leopold feebly waved him to the chair beside the bed, "come sit closer so that we may speak more easily."

James did as he was bade, settling into the cushioned seat, uncharacteristically unsure of himself with this man.

The king gazed at him watchfully. "My daughter told me she knows of my rejecting your request to propose."

James' hands tightened into fists, bracing himself for whatever was to come. "She was hurt and wanted to know why I left so suddenly. I wouldn't lie to her, I love her and she deserves the truth."

"How did she take it?"

The prince looked down. "She was hurt and angry with both of us for acting so high-handed and not discussing it with her."

"But you worked things out," his hoarse voice prompted.

The fair-haired man lifted his head, lips quirking up in a rueful grin. "It took some time, discussion, yelling, apologies, and promises on my part, to never make decisions that involve us both without her again."

What was just barely recognizable as a laugh escaped Leopold. "My daughter is a very strong woman; I would have been worried if she'd made it easy for you."

A chuckle rumbled from James, surprising himself since humor was certainly something he had not expected to feel during this meeting. "That strength is one of the things I love most about her, what originally grabbed my attention. Both as an adult and as a child."

"I had wondered," Leopold stated slowly, "if you both had remembered your friendship as children."

"Not until Riverdon."

"Thick as thieves you two were."

Regardless of his intention to remain on guard with Snow's father, the prince found the tension steadily easing, though there was still a corner of his mind bracing itself, waiting for the other shoe to drop. "I hadn't consciously realized how much I had missed her or even what it was I was missing so much."

"You were both very young. It isn't overly surprising that your friendship was pushed to the back of your mind with so much time and other things demanding both of your attention."

James tilted his head to the side in thought; there was a question that'd been bothering him for a while. "Why did you remove Snow so entirely from Court life? Why did you keep her from the friends she had among the royalty outside of King Gaspard, Princess Aurora and Prince Eric?"

The king was silent for several moments. "At that gathering, the last one Snow attended..." His voice trailed off, pain caused by whatever he was remembering evident in his aged face. "My wife was barely five months passed and single women and widows were being shoved at me at every turn." Anger was heavy in his tone, his eyes found the young man's. "My wife, the love of my life, hadn't even been gone long enough for her perfume to fade from our quarters, and they were already trying to replace her."

The thought of losing Snow came unbidden to James' mind, cutting through him like a thousand shards of glass, shedding his heart. Oh, yes, he could readily understand Leopold's fury at the Court's machinations.

Apparently the older man saw this in his eyes for he nodded slowly. "For that, I left, taking Snow with me."

His eyelids slid shut, a weary breath escaping him, the emotional outburst having obviously taken quite a bit out of him. However when James offered to call for Doc, he waved the concern off, continuing after taking a moment to catch his breath.

"Time passed and eventually the pain became tolerable. I kept...meaning to return to High Court, but I always found reasons not to and it had become easier to stay away, for Snow had little desire to attend such functions, preferring the society of her small group of friends and remaining home. I told myself that I just was allowing her to do what she wished, but truthfully, at least in part…I've been selfish. She is all I have left of the woman I loved and I didn't want to share her." He swallowed, eyes closing for a moment, almost in shame.

"I didn't rejoin Court until after I remarried. Regina…she's often told me that my indulgence of letting Snow refuse to attend the functions has done more harm than good, that I actually significantly damaged her ability to find a match." His guilty eyes opened to stare at the bed canopy. "I didn't want to hear it, so I ignored her warnings."

The king turned to the man–yes, he had to admit to himself that James wasn't a boy, but a man, and a good one–sitting beside him. "You love my daughter."

The prince stiffened, wary of where things might go with that statement, but he nodded, eyes never wavering from Leopold's. "With all my heart."

"Coming close to death," the ailing man commented philosophically, "allows you rather clear hindsight. I realize now that in allowing Snow to avoid Court I did hinder her ability to handle High Court and to meet men whom she could marry." He was blinking rapidly. "If I had pushed her to attend High Court functions she would be more prepared to step into that aspect of ruling the kingdom…" his throat constricted, "and you would have found each other sooner."

James' eyebrows shot for his hairline.

Tears trickled from the corners of Leopold's eyes. "I am facing the bitter reality that I'm not young anymore. I will die, likely sooner than later, and when that happens I do not want my child to be alone, to rule alone." He looked to his daughter's beloved. "My reasons for refusing you in Riverdon weren't the ones I gave…or at least not only the ones I gave."

The young man shifted in his chair, leaning forward. "Your Majesty–"

The king waved his words off. "James, I am giving you my blessing to ask my daughter for her hand. I believe you could call me Leopold at this juncture."

There was a beat of silence, the fair-haired man still struggling to process the fact that this was truly happening, that her father, a man he worried would never accept James' suit of Snow, had just granted, not only his consent, but his blessing. It took several breaths that he actually had to focus on drawing in before he was able to speak. "You want me to marry Snow?"

"If it is what she wants, yes," the king nodded as firmly as he was able.

James' head dropped in relief. "Thank you," he gasped out. His head rose again to look at the father of his fiancée-to-be. "Thank you, Leopold."

"You will have to wait until the end of the mourning period for Henry…and I must insist that this matter with Midas be officially resolved as well, before you ask Snow."

He was already nodding before Leopold had even finished. "I expected we'd have to wait a mourning period, and I was planning on seeing Midas and Abigail this week before I received news of Henry's death."

A hint of amusement touched Leopold's exhausted features. "I do not imagine Midas liked being put off."

James smirked. "If he takes issue with me delaying our meeting for a short while because I'm attending a funeral, then I expect he won't be too vocal about it, unless he wants to explain his pique to the Court." His expression became serious. "I have made arrangements in case he does take offense, in order to try to protect both of our kingdoms."

"Good…" Leopold was fading fast, his energy sapped from their discussion. "Help Snow through this."

"I will," he promised. "I will be there for her every day for as long as I live."

The burden that had been pressing on Leopold's mind eased, the weight of worry for his daughter and the hurt he'd caused her lifted. The king and father drifted off to sleep much more at peace than he'd been in days.


Midas scowled down at the letter–more like a hurriedly scribbled note–in his hand, slamming it down on the table next to his breakfast plate. "The nerve of him!"

Abigail took a deep breath. "Father, I'm fairly certain Prince James didn't intend for Lord Henry to die this week. And we certainly couldn't expect him not to attend the funeral if he was friends with the man or the family," she calmly pointed out. "Besides, he said that he just needed to reschedule, that he could be here next week." She forced herself to sound bright at the prospect.

Her father grumbled as he began eating again, stabbing the ham with a little more force than necessary. "I've business to attend to. He'll have to wait until we return in three weeks or so. As it is, he's been putting this off for far too long."

She pushed the eggs around on her plate. "It is a very big decision, for both of us… Marriage is for life." Her heart plummeted at the thought.

"This is a good match! He can hardly do better." The king's tone dripped with annoyance and fury.

She was staring at her plate fixedly. "Neither can we," she quietly pointed out, loath though she was to do so.

"Humph," he groused. Midas didn't like to acknowledge that this fact went both ways.

Abigail wasn't really surprised that her father hadn't noticed her own lack of enthusiasm over the marriage. She loved him dearly, but, as her beloved, departed mother had often said, when her father latched onto something he was rather blind to how others felt about it.

"Father…" she began tentatively, "maybe this match isn't the…best idea?"

Her father frowned. "Of course it's a good idea. It is perfect for you both."

The princess longed to speak up, to tell him how she really felt, that she didn't want to marry Prince James, that there was someone else in her heart… But even if he agreed he'd be worried about offending the prince and King George. Never had Abigail felt more trapped in her life. Or more heartbroken.


Snow had obviously been pacing for some time when James returned to the study. She spun toward him as he came through the door, hands clasped in front of her, wringing them raw. "Is everything all right?" she asked as he closed the door.

The prince crossed the room in just a few long strides, cupped her face in his hands and kissed her soundly. His beloved was stunned and for a moment unable to respond but soon enough recovered and kissed him back with equal enthusiasm. Eventually James lifted his head so that he could gaze down at her.

Snow's eyes blinked open, face flushed, expression bemused. "What was that for?"

James grinned, tucking a stray lock behind her ear. "Do I need an excuse to kiss my fiancée-to-be?"

Dark eyebrows shot up. They both knew that was what they were to each other, but they'd never actually spoken the term out loud. "Charming?"

His grin broadened, fingers caressing her cheek. "He gave his blessing."

She was frozen for several heartbeats, then her mouth fell open slightly, breath coming in gasps, hardly daring to believe. "You mean...?"

James was certain his face would split from how wide his smile was. "Your father has given his blessing for me to propose after the mourning period for Henry has ended."

Snow gave a wordless cry of joy, leaping into his arms; laughing, he lifted her off her feet, spinning them around. When he finally set her back down, Snow immediately pressed her lips to his in ecstatic joy and relief, he cradled her jaw in his palms. When their lips finally pulled apart they kept their foreheads pressed together.

"I love you," James murmured.

The dark-haired beauty's arms tightened around his shoulders. "I love you too." Her white teeth were a stark contrast to her red lower lip as she bit it. "He really gave his blessing?"

James knew she wasn't questioning his honesty, but that she was having as much trouble as him grasping the idea that this impediment to their betrothal had finally and suddenly been removed. "Well, he did have one stipulation."

She jerked her head back, gazing at him worriedly.

His thumb smoothed over the lines that'd formed between her eyebrows. "I have to break with Midas first," he felt all of the tension drain from her, bringing a grin to his face, "which I assured him I had already been planning to do."

A relieved sigh escaped her as she leaned back into the circle of his arms, nuzzling her face into the crook of his shoulder. James was more than happy to return the embrace, burying his nose in her hair and holding her tightly.

"I feel guilty," she whispered after several moments of comfortable silence.

Her prince frowned, tilting his head down and lifting her chin so he could look in her eyes. "Why?" he asked, genuinely bewildered.

Emerald eyes cast downward, almost shamefully. "Henry has just died, his funeral is tomorrow, but right now I'm..." She blinked furiously, trying to keep the tears that were threatening at bay. "I'm so..."

"Happy?" he offered, understanding dawning, remembering all too well how all over the place and intense his emotions had been for a while after David's death, and the moments of guilt when he'd felt happy. It'd been a couple of months before he found even a semblance of balance with his emotions, before he'd been able to feel happiness without guilt.

Snow's face lifted to his, craving the understanding in his blue-eyed gaze, and the added nod of affirmation.

He gently caressed her cheek with his thumb. "It takes time," he quoted back her advice from the Spring Festival. "And it's only been a little over a day."

Nodding, she gave him a bittersweet smile, burrowing back into the comfort of his arms. James was in no hurry to let her go, gently running soothing strokes of his palms up and down her back, pressing sweet kisses into her hair and on her forehead.

There was a polite rap at the door.

"Just a moment," Snow called. She allowed herself a few more moments in James' embrace, drawing strength before forcing herself to pull away, his arms equally reluctant in releasing her. They stepped far enough apart to just barely constitute a respectable distance. "Come in."

A footman entered, bowing to them both. "Your Majesties, Prince Thomas' carriage has just entered the village."

"Thank you, we'll greet him ourselves."

The servant bowed again. "Very good, ma'am."

After the man left, James turned to her, offering his arm. "Shall we?"

The over-solicitous gesture coaxed a smile onto her face as she threaded her hand through his elbow. "Indeed."

Liam was already waiting at the bottom of the stairs to the entrance, he nodded to them both in greeting. "Red had to run down to the Inn for a few hours," he explained for her absence.

"And Ella?" Snow questioned.

"I'm not sure where she is," the general shrugged apologetically. "Last I heard she was somewhere in the palace helping prepare the rooms for the guests who're arriving today. I don't think she's heard that Thomas is arriving right now."

"If she isn't here when they arrive, Thomas will find her," James stated assuredly.

The other two nodded before their attention was turned to the carriage rolling through the main gate, two guards riding before it and another pair behind, up to where they were standing.

The carriage came to a stop in front of the two royals and general, door opening without waiting for the footman to reveal Thomas. The soon-to-be-king nodded to his brother and friends before stepping down and turning to give Belle a hand. They immediately moved to stand before Snow, their hostess and the representing member of the grieving family.

Thomas took her hand bowing over it while she curtseyed, observing under these solemn circumstances the rules of etiquette more than they normally would.

"Snow," he said once they had both straightened, gaze sad and sympathetic, "I'm so sorry." He swallowed. "Henry was a great man, I'll miss him."

She managed a small smile, placing a grateful hand on his arm, knowing that his visits to Everland while courting Ella had led to a friendship between the two men. "Thank you. He liked you and thought very highly of you."

Her brother-in-law-to-be gave her hand one last supportive squeeze before stepping aside so that she could greet Belle and moved toward his brother and Liam.

Belle curtseyed to Snow, but after a beat she impulsively hugged the ebony-haired woman. "I'm sorry," she managed into her new friend's shoulder, tears clogging her already muffled voice.

The princess blinked furiously as she embraced the petite woman back, unable to say anything because she knew she wouldn't be able to hold back her tears if she did.

After a few moments Belle hurriedly pulled back, swiping at the tears that had escaped and fallen down her cheeks.

James, seeing that Snow was struggling with her own emotions, stepped forward, waving the servants by the door to come forward and gather the trunks.

Thomas had been scanning their surroundings but his eyes now went to his brother. "Where's Ella?"

Liam stepped forward. "She's in the castle somewhere; I sent a couple of servants looking for her when we heard you were nearly here. They've probably found her and she just hasn't gotten here yet."

The younger prince nodded, already making his way up the stairs. "I'll go find her myself."

The elder brother and the general shared an amused glance.

"Mara," Snow called to the remaining maid who stepped forward. "You remember Belle?"

"Of course milady," the brunette servant smiled at the librarian.

"It's good to see you again," Belle nodded.

"Please show her to her room."

"The one she stayed in last time?"

"Yes," the princess confirmed, turning back to Belle. "I have work that I must do. Will we see you for dinner?"

"Of course," the petite woman confirmed. "I'll see you then."

Snow reached out and grasped her arm, giving it a grateful squeeze. "Thank you for being here."

Her friend smiled and nodded. "I'm glad to be of help in any way I can."

"You already are," the raven-haired woman assured her.

The librarian finally allowed herself to follow Mara into the castle, Liam trailing overprotectively behind them.

James moved to stand behind Snow, hands resting comfortingly on her shoulders; she leaned back into his chest, hands coming up to grip his, neither able to really care about the scandal the gesture could create, just giving and receiving comfort.

He leaned forward, saying gently in her ear, "We'll head inside whenever you're ready."

She closed her eyes breathing deeply, taking a moment before nodding and squeezing his hands. "Let's go."


Thomas found Ella quite quickly, actually found wasn't exactly right, he literally ran into her. They slammed into each other as she rushed around a corner. He was knocked back a couple of steps along with the wind from his lungs, Ella fell backward, sprawling ungracefully on the floor of the hall with an "Oof!"

"Ella!" He reached down to help her up.

In spite of her position, the moment she recognized him a grin lit the blonde's face, and she breathed, "Thomas." She wasn't even paying attention as he pulled her up, her eyes never leaving him.

The black kerchief she'd been wearing had slipped, falling back on her head; Thomas gently adjusted it back to its proper place.

Ella reached up, hand patting over the cloth, grinning at him sheepishly and he couldn't help smiling at how adorable the expression on her face was.

He ran his fingers down her cheek and she leaned into the caress, basking in the adoration in his gaze.

"Hi." Humor colored his tone as he actually greeted her.

A laugh bubbled from the beautiful woman in his arms. "Hi, yourself," she returned saucily.

The prince snuck a look around them, making sure they were alone, and turned back to her. "So, do I get a kiss hello?"

"Maybe," she teased, arms sliding up around his neck, grinning and leaning toward him.

"'Maybe,'" he mimicked just before their lips met.

Her laugh was muffled by their kiss, her arms tightening around his neck to pull herself closer.

When their lips parted, she grinned. "I missed you." Her hands slid to his shoulders.

"Missed you too." He let his palms skim up and down her upper arms. "I'm sorry about Henry."

All joy drained from her expression, her head dropped, palms falling to rest against his chest. "Gods…I…for a moment…"

"Forgot?" he offered, rubbing her back.

Her eyes lifted to his guiltily. "Does that make me a horrible person?" The only other person she'd ever really known and loved who'd died was her father and it had been so long ago…

"No." Thomas shook his head firmly to emphasize the word. "When my brother David died a few years ago it was a very emotional time for all of us. I felt unbearably sad one moment, something would make me want to burst out laughing the next, then minutes later furious enough to put my fist through the wall, and quite often just…numb."

She glanced toward the window, the uneven diamond-pattern glass distorting the view outside, fracturing it. "I…" She swallowed. "He is–was so kind and caring… He treated me like family even though we hadn't known each other that long."

"Quite often…" the prince canted his head thoughtfully to the side, "it's a matter of the quality of time spent together rather than the quantity."

Her pained blue eyes met his, searching them for something. Finally, apparently finding what she needed, she sighed, letting her body fall forward against him and nodding.

Thomas accepted the weight more than willingly, cradling her form to his chest, the most precious burden in the world to him, quite content not to go anywhere for as long as she needed him to hold her.


"Prince James!"

James was about to climb the main stairs but turned at the call. One of the footmen was dashing across the hall toward him. "Yes?" He placed the foot that had been on the first step back on the floor and fully faced the servant.

The flustered man came to a stop in front of the prince, bowing hurriedly. "King Gaspard is nearly through the village."

"Have you told Princess Snow?"

"She's in a meeting with several nobles and she's given strict instruction that she isn't to be disturbed." James had momentarily forgotten that she was dealing with a few particularly quarrelsome lords before the mourning period truly began. "And Queen Regina isn't seeing anyone." His hands were fidgeting at his sides, obviously trying to force himself not to wring them. "Being a ruling monarch, protocol demands–"

"That he be greeted by a member of the royal family," James continued, rubbing his chin.

"We're just not sure what to do."

The prince thoughtfully traced the scar on his chin. "I know King Gaspard, I'll greet him."

"Are you sure…?"

James held up a hand, halting the footman's question. "He's close to Snow and he'll understand the lapse in protocol."

"Thank you," he gasped out, obviously relieved to have the issue taken out of his hands.

The fair-haired prince began making his way to the main doors, calling over his shoulder, "Send a few men out to help with the luggage." He heard the footman acknowledge the order and his feet scurrying off to carry it out.

James was still descending the stairs when the king of Rosewood's carriage and guards pulled up; he came to a stop next to it as Gaspard was easing out of the door. Once the monarch was standing upright, James bowed respectfully. "King Gaspard, it's good to see you again."

A single eyebrow rose on the taller man's forehead, bowing his head in acknowledgement. "Prince James, the feeling is mutual. May I inquire where Snow is?"

The prince had his hands clasped behind his back. "We weren't expecting you for another hour; she's in a meeting with a few nobles, one she couldn't avoid or postpone. Queen Regina has asked not to be disturbed."

"Understandable," Gaspard assured him.

James turned to see two footmen, one of them the one who alerted him to Gaspard's arrival, making their way down the stairs as quickly as they could while maintaining some semblance of dignity. They quickly went to grab the trunk the king's men had removed from the back of the carriage, moving with equal speed and efficiency to carry it up to the castle.

"Your quarters should be ready." The Seaborn heir gestured for the other man to follow him up to the castle.

"Thank you." Gaspard leaned on his cane, limp more pronounced than usual because of the confined ride in the cool, damp weather making his leg ache. The young king glanced at the man next to him. "How is she?"

James glanced down. "Tired, hurting, missing Henry, but now she's letting us help her at least."

Sharp blue eyes scanned over the prince assessingly. "You."

"Sorry?" James frowned in confusion.

"She's letting you help." Gaspard countered. "Or at least you're the reason she's letting others help."

He didn't make eye contact. "How do you figure that?"

"She wouldn't do so otherwise," the king allowed his own gaze to wander their surroundings as well, "not for any of us."

James said nothing.

"Snow has always kept most things to herself, Red and I she perhaps will talk to more than others, but on a whole she tends to not want to 'burden' anyone." The wry emphasis he placed on "burden" telegraphed loudly just how much of one Snow wasn't.

The prince and king nodded their thanks to the servants who held the doors open for them.

"But you're the same story as well," the young king continued conversationally.

"Is there a point to this analysis?" James inquired uncomfortably, stopping and facing the other man.

Gaspard turned to meet his gaze head on. "Two people so intent on doing everything themselves, usually such a relationship wouldn't work, neither would want to surrender control to the other. But for you and Snow, you are each other's exception. She's the only one you're willing to share your burdens with and vice versa."

It bothered the Seaborn Prince having someone he really didn't know that well be able to read him like an open book, able to read his and Snow's relationship so easily.

"Again, Your Majesty, I inquire if there is a point behind you sharing these observations?"

"Just simply this," Gaspard calmly answered. "Not only does she love you, she trusts you above all others…break that trust and I'll make you wish you were dead."

The two men stared at each other silently for several moments.

"I won't," James finally said, "but if I ever were to…you'd needn't bother…I'd make myself regret being born."

Snow's surrogate big brother nodded. "Good." He shifted to lean both of his hands on his cane. "When will Snow be finished with the idiot nobles who don't have the good grace to leave off their squabbles until she's had time to mourn?"

The prince smirked. "Not for another hour, she made sure they had a time limit and informed them of it."

"I'm glad; she doesn't need to waste any more energy on them than necessary." His eyes scanned the entrance hall. "I heard that Mistress Belle came here with your brother."

"She did."

Gaspard raised an eyebrow at the slight tightening of James' features at his asking after the Seaborn Librarian. "Do you happen to know where she might be?"

Grudgingly, the prince said, "I would guess in the library."

"Thank you." The king bowed his head to James, then turned and headed toward the library.


He stopped and turned back, surprised, and yet not, at the break in protocol.

James' jaw was set, the muscles tightening and then loosening a few times before he finally said, "What you said of Snow…the same goes for Belle."

Gaspard had already respected the future monarch, but in that moment his esteem rose even further. "And what you said applies as well."


Belle was indeed curled up in one of the library's wingback chairs, book open in her lap, fast asleep, when Gaspard found her. Her face was relaxed, peaceful in rest, the shadows that always lurked in her eyes and the ever-present strain on her face absent. That stubborn lock that always refused to stay pulled back fell across her forehead, the curl teasing the corner of her eye. Gaspard longed to reach over and brush those strands back, longed for the right to do that. His heart ached with how lovely she was, how heartbreakingly beautiful with her flawless features.

His hand clenched the handle of his cane, the pain in his knee suddenly more pronounced. What right did he have to pursue her? A broken, crippled man such as him?

She stirred, deep brown eyes fluttering open, gaze going to his, her mouth turning upward into an enchanting smile and dispelling the darker thoughts that had been taking root again in his mind. A responding smile lifted the king's lips.

"Hi," she sleepily greeted.

Gods, he didn't think he could breathe. "Hi." His voice was strained from having to force the word out around the tightness in his throat.

Belle drew her feet out from under her, letting them drop to the floor, groaning from her cramped knees, and her eyes lifted wryly to his. "You would think that I'd learn my lesson and not fall asleep in a chair."

Gaspard chuckled, offering his hand to help her up; she closed her book, accepting the proffered hand.

Without prompting she tucked her hand into his elbow, keeping the book in her other hand. "What time is it?"

He led her through the shelves. "After one o'clock."

"Well, that explains why I'm so hungry." Belle smiled up at him sheepishly. "I missed lunch. I became absorbed in this." She lifted the book.

"I can certainly understand that." He grinned in return. "Well, we can go to the kitchen and throw ourselves on Hannah's mercy."


"The cook." They stepped into the hall. "She's been fussing over Snow, Red, Aurora, Eric and myself, and shaking a spoon at us all our lives. She can't stand the thought of someone not getting a proper meal."

A brilliant grin lit her face. "Lead the way."


James had a pounding headache after spending the last half hour helping the staff deal with the guests who'd been steadily arriving for the funeral, many of whom weren't particularly patient or polite. The three he'd just left had been haranguing poor Mara with petty issues over the rooms they'd been given. When James had stepped in the nobles had looked to him, expecting that he'd side with them.

They were given a rude awakening call when James had just stared at them and then said, "So let me get this right. The royal family is in mourning for a beloved member, the member whose funeral you're here to attend, and you're whining and making a huge fuss because you didn't get the rooms you wanted…"

The cold, burning glare from his blue eyes had them visibly withering and slinking sulkily off to the quarters they'd each been assigned with no further complaint. Mara had thanked him effusively before gratefully moving off to continue with her work.

He was briskly descending the main stairway when Snow entered with a pretty blonde and Eric just behind them.

"James!" He was pleased to see the smile gracing Snow's face, she met him at the bottom of the staircase, curving her hand into his elbow and leading him forward toward his cousin and her friend.

The Seaborn prince reached out to shake the prince of Seaside's hand. "Eric, it's been a while. Good to see you, though I wish it were under better circumstances." He felt Snow's grip tighten; his free hand covered the one she had on his arm, drawing her closer.

"Same here, cousin," the younger man gave a sad smile.

Snow cleared her throat, trying to loosen the tightness that'd settled there. "James, I'd like to introduce you to Aurora." She gestured to the blonde. "Aurora, this is James."

James stepped forward, keeping his hand on Snow's, making sure that she could maintain her grip, not wanting her to lose whatever comfort he could give her when she was so obviously upset. He reluctantly removed his hand from hers, to reach out and accept the one Aurora had extended, bowing over it as she curtseyed.

The princess of Glenbriar watched him with an arched eyebrow as they both straightened, gaze assessing. Well, this is going to be fun, he thought wryly as he returned his hand to where Snow's rested.

"Well, Snow, Red was right; I can certainly understand the appeal."

The dark-haired princess choked on laughter, a grin lifted James' mouth at hearing her mirth, and his eyes cut to the golden-haired woman in time to see her wink at him conspiratorially. He nodded, more than willing to take her jabs if it helped the woman he loved, and he knew that he had it coming from Snow's friends, he was the man who had "stolen" her heart.

James turned his eyes to Eric, only to find him smirking and realized that his cousin would be siding with Aurora, Red and Gaspard when it came to Snow.

"Yes," they all turned at the sardonic voice to see Red approaching from the kitchen. "Prince Charming quite lives up to his name."

Snow had her face pressed into his shoulder, hers shaking with repressed laughter at his expense, which James was more than willing to take.

"Now, I'm feeling truly ganged up on," he commented wryly, a faux look of tried patience on his face.

His princess swallowed back her remaining laughter, taking deep breaths to compose herself, then lifting her head to look at her friends. "Your rooms should be ready." She looked questioningly at Red, who nodded confirmation.

Red turned to the visiting prince and princess. "It's your usual rooms; I'm sure you know the way, but I'll walk you both up there anyway."

Eric shook his head amusedly at their snarky friend. "Thank you."

Aurora rolled her eyes, nodding her thanks before turning her attention back to James. "I suppose we'll put the interrogation off until later."

"Oh, goodie," he said with faux enthusiasm.

The blond princess smirked at him as she followed Red.

Snow caught her friend's hand as she passed and squeezed it, her smile grateful.

Aurora gripped her hand back, her grin conveying that she understood her thank you; she then made her way up the stairs after Red and Eric.

When their three friends disappeared upstairs, Snow and James were left alone in the main entranceway. She tugged on his arm, urging him to turn to face her; he gazed at her questioningly.

Snow grinned and, completely ignoring propriety, pulled his lips down to hers. "Thank you," she whispered against his mouth, resting her hand against his heart. "Thank you for letting Aurora tease you to make me laugh."

He grinned, placing one more kiss on her lips before reluctantly releasing her to put an appropriate amount of distance between them.


They both turned at the call, one of the footmen was hurrying toward them down the stairs.

"Yes?" she inquired, clasping her hands before her.

"Lady Maleficent is about to arrive."

Snow grimaced and muttered softly, "Thanks for small blessings."

James looked at her questioningly.

"I'll be right there," she dismissed the footman, once he was gone she turned to James. "There's some very complicated and messy history between Maleficent and Aurora's family. I'm just grateful that Aurora was already upstairs before she arrived."

"Why is she here?"

"She's Regina's oldest and closest friend, so naturally she'd be here for the funeral."


Snow took his hand in hers for a moment. "I'll see you later?"

"Of course," he promised.

With a soft smile she turned and headed out the doors.


"I'm sorry, Regina, my dear." Maleficent kissed each of Regina's cheeks.

"Thank you." The queen's reply was subdued. "I miss him very much."

The lady raised a sardonic eyebrow as she took an offered seat. "Please, Regina, no need for the stiff upper lip with me."

The younger woman's gaze went to the windows, blinking hard and repetitively. "It's just very…daunting realizing that I'm truly alone, that once Leopold dies I will have no one."

"You'll have the little princess," she waved a vague hand in Snow's hypothetical direction, making a face, "such as she is."

Regina shook her head as she poured each of them a glass of wine, unable to truly stay still for too long. "You know we aren't close. And now that she's found the man she wants to marry she'll have a life and family of her own after her father's death." Envy colored her voice as she described what was in Snow's future.

"Really?" Maleficent's expression was intrigued. "The little ice princess has finally fallen in love, has she?"

Her friend's lips twisted into a wry smile. "Indeed." Her expression fell, taking a sip of her wine. "At least someone gets to."

"I'm surprised that you're so eager to see her all happily married when you didn't get the same right."

Regina once again stood from the seat she'd taken and paced to the window. "I can't truly begrudge her the happiness she's found. It's not her fault that I never found a love of my own." Her gaze went to the goblet in her hand. "Leopold and I care for each other a great deal, and my marriage to him is certainly better than many other possibilities that could have befallen me."

The blonde winced. "Regina, I didn't mean to bring up–"

The dark-haired woman spun back to her. "It's fine. Life is full of disappointments, we both know that. What matters is making the most of what hand we're dealt."

Maleficent snorted delicately. "Well, you've certainly been better about playing your hand than I."

Regina gave her a look. "You were actually in love with King Stefan when he broke it off after meeting and falling for Leah. You've good reason to feel bitter about such things."

"Your loss is no less than mine," she countered.

Dark eyes turned back to the low, grey sky hanging over the mountains. "Perhaps, but I certainly can't mourn what I've never had."


James only saw Snow a couple of times over the next few hours, finding himself truly and completely pulled into the preparations and arrangements for the next day and continuing to help with the arriving visitors. He was surprised at the willingness of the staff to take direction from him, to the point where they would actually seek him out for his input.

It was an hour or so before dinner when James ran into Red who was struggling with a pile of linens.

"Let me take a few of those." Without waiting for her consent he grabbed the majority of the stack.

She rolled her eyes and muttered, "Pain in the ass noble streak."

He smirked at her, unapologetic as he followed her to the linen closet, but then his expression turned curious. "I do have a question."

She cast him an acknowledging glance over her shoulder as she opened the closet. "Yes?"

"The staff…" he followed her in, still formulating how he wanted to word what he needed to say, "they've been very…accepting of…me."

Piling the sheets on the shelves, a smirk of her own was playing at her lips; she wasn't going to make things any easier for him.

"I mean," he placed the items in his arms wherever she indicated, "they follow what I say and come to me as if…"

Ok, maybe she'd help him a little. "As if you're a member of the family?" Her gaze met his, humor alight in her hazel orbs.

"Yes. I was just…wondering why?"

"James." She turned, leaning back against one of the shelves, arms crossed over her chest. "I don't know how…aware your family and people, your kingdom, are of your feelings for Snow. Here, at least among the villagers and the castle staff, it's no secret."

His expression was sheepish. "We're that obvious?"

"More than, but we also know her very well. All we're waiting for is the proposal which we know will be soon. In the minds of most you're already Snow's fiancé, and with her being overwhelmed, Queen Regina unavailable, and King Leopold still recovering you're the next in line, so to speak. They're looking to you as their future prince."

Swallowing hard, James' eyes dropped to his hands. "I'm…honored. And humbled by their trust."

Red gazed at him levelly. "You know the trust isn't just about following your orders and looking to you. We're trusting you with our princess, something infinitely more precious."

He met her pointed look. "I know." This had been pressed on him multiple times since yesterday. He accepted that there were going to be many people cautioning him and being protective of her, but he hoped that they understood that he'd rather cut out his own heart than hurt her.

She braced her hands on a shelf, tapping it thoughtfully with one finger; deciding something, she reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a folded piece of paper. She ran her fingers over the creased edges before stepping forward and holding it out to him.

He accepted it, looking at her questioningly. "What's this?"

"A week or so ago I went up to her room, looking for a paper she needed…I found that tucked in a book." Her hands rubbed up and down her upper arms. "Just thought you…needed to see it." Without another word she left the room.

For several moments James stared at the empty doorway, his eyes eventually dropped to the paper in his hands, he turned it over a few times, debating whether to read it or not. It was obviously something personal of Snow's and it was wrong to invade her privacy, but he knew Red too well to think she'd give something like this to him without good reason. Finally he forced himself to unfold it.

My Beloved Charming,

I don't think I can ever convey how much I miss you, how nothing really feels right with you not here…


Aurora had only seen Maleficent a handful of times, mostly when she was visiting Snow and the woman happened to be there to see Regina. The first time she'd met her father's ex-fiancée she'd been about six and Maleficent had sneered at her before turning to Queen Leah and saying, "So the little brat takes after the whore." Her mother had rushed her away, horrified that her child had been treated thus. Every meeting since had been equally pleasant, though for the most part Maleficent just looked down her nose at the princess, who glared back at her.

The Glenbriar princess had no intention of making a scene over the woman's presence at the funeral, she was after all Regina's best friend and Aurora would never begrudge a person comfort after losing someone they loved. But the sight of Maleficent put her teeth on edge, she'd compressed her lips so tightly that she wondered if they would be stuck that way. She purposely kept her gaze turned from the woman, trying to keep from seeing her and having her ire flare. Maleficent seemed to be equally determined to keep the peace and was ignoring her entirely, instead focusing on the queen, who was much more reserved than usual.

The dining hall was unsurprisingly rather subdued and quieter than one would expect for the size of the gathering. Rather than following the usual custom of seating people according to rank, instead those the queen and princess wanted near them were granted seats around the bereaved family members, Everland being one of the kingdoms that broke with tradition during funerals for the grieving members comfort. Snow was to Regina's right with Maleficent to her left; there were a couple of nobles who'd been good friends with Henry and Regina long before she married the king just to the other side of the blonde. Gaspard had unobtrusively taken the second seat down from Snow, leaving the one next to her free, into which James of Seaborn had slid without comment or ceremony, but making a bold statement loud and clear and setting more than a few tongues wagging around the table.

Aurora's eyebrow rose as she took the chair on the other side of Gaspard. "You've given your approval," she murmured into her friend's ear. "I'm surprised it was granted so soon."

"She needs him," he countered in just as low a tone. "That's all that matters right now, but yes, we did come to an understanding…on both of our parts." His head tilted subtly toward Belle, who was taking the seat next to Aurora, Thomas and Liam protectively placed on her other side.

The Glenbriar Princess' eyebrows shot to her hairline, she hadn't expected that either. They'd all observed how protective Thomas was of the librarian while they were in Rosewood, and the prince had assured them that James was even worse. She dearly wished that she'd met her friend's suitor under better circumstances, she'd have loved to give him the hell appropriate for him stealing her dear friend's heart and grill him about why he was letting Gaspard off the hook so easily. Perhaps she could at least properly interrogate him tomorrow before the funeral or during the dinner that night. She could do with the distraction.

The last week had been terrible, on top of losing Henry her parents had informed her that Prince Philip would be arriving for a visit in a couple of weeks. Her jaw clenched at the thought. This was one of the last things she'd wanted to hear, but her mother and father had been pleased and relieved. They'd long hoped that the betrothal would work out, while Aurora had quietly hoped that he'd lose interest or that she'd fall in love with another.

"Aurora," Belle quietly inquired from beside her, concern obvious, "are you all right?"

She forced a smile for the petite brunette. "I'm fine."

"She's angry because Philip is going to be coming for a visit soon after she arrives home," Gaspard interjected low enough that only they would hear.

Belle's eyebrows flew up while the blond princess glared at her friend.

"You know, people really don't like it when you show off how you know everything that's going on," Aurora hissed.

"Between you and Prince Philip I'm sure you'll have plenty to talk about and an overflowing well of angst to deal with." The young king's voice was mild and conversational as he continued to eat.

Aurora had been trying to burn holes into her friend when a movement just beyond him drew her attention. They'd been keeping their voices down, but as Prince James' eyes met hers she knew that he'd heard their conversation and in his gaze she could see he wanted to say something, but was holding back. Why?

The question must have registered in her eyes because the prince pointedly allowed his blue gaze to sweep the guests at the table around them before returning to her and shaking his head.

A hand resting upon her own pulled her attention away from the Seaborn heir, who had already turned back to the grieving princess beside him. Belle's calm brown eyes met hers; the young librarian seemed to consider for a moment what she wanted to say.

"Don't… Try not to hold onto childhood grudges with Philip or believe all of the rumors. He–he's not who most people think…" She trailed off, as if wondering if she'd said too much, she turned to the prince and general on her other side who'd studiously been pretending not to hear their conversation. Thomas simply reached up and gently squeezed her hand for a moment in support. Belle released the breath she'd been holding and returned to her meal.

The blonde frowned; she supposed it was natural for Belle to defend a man who, according to Thomas, had been like another brother to her. But still, she was thrown and confused by her words and James' actions.

There was a stir around the table; Aurora looked up to see Snow rising from her seat, all the men automatically doing the same out of respect. The princess waved for them to resume their seats before stepping away, pushing her seat in. She stopped beside her stepmother, laying a hand on her shoulder and softly spoke to the woman. Aurora assumed she asked her a question because the queen responded with a shake of her head and the princess could read Regina's lips well enough to determine that she said "thank you." Aurora couldn't help the surprise that lit her face at the interaction, it was rare that Snow and Regina were civil to each other, but her friend's actions were far more solicitous than she'd ever seen directed toward her stepmother, and the queen was equally obliging in her response. The blond princess wondered how this would bode for their future relationship.

After a couple of minutes Belle leaned around Aurora so that she could see Gaspard. "King Gaspard," he turned, giving her his attention, "may I ask you to escort me to the library and show me that book you mentioned earlier?"

"Of course." Gaspard wiped his mouth with his napkin and laid it on the table, then turned to the queen. "With your leave, Your Majesty?"

Regina waved her permission.

The king rose with the aid of his cane, offering his arm to the librarian who accepted it, and with their exit, smoothed the way for James to request his leave of dinner with at least a little less speculative, scandalized whispering.

"Very nice," Aurora murmured, impressed with the librarian's ability to play the petty political games of the nobility, even without being of them herself. This, the princess thought decisively, would serve her well if things continued to progress between Gaspard and the Seaborn Librarian.

A half-stifled snort escaped Liam, drawing Aurora's attention and a wince from Thomas, who less than discreetly kicked his friend under the table, easily following where the general's mind had gone.

The princess leveled a hard stare at Liam. "I would think after all the time you've spent among Court you'd be able to rein in your thoughts and reactions."

An unrepentant grin crossed his face. "Nope."

Sky blue eyes narrowed. "Red's going to give you hell for that."

If anything his grin became wider. "I'm looking forward to it."


Snow was glad to be away from the table, it'd helped having her friends being those closest to her and Charming right next to her, but the environment had been stifling and rife with gossip. She was glad to have had James beside her but in Gaspard giving up this traditional spot as surrogate brother to a man whom the nobles hadn't a clue Snow was in love with had the rumor mill going wild. To say the least it was a rather scandalous situation, and Snow was endlessly grateful that Regina had either not noticed their guests acting all abuzz or had chosen to ignore it.

She opened the door to her father's room–she had used checking on him as an excuse to leave the table so early, but she'd truly been concerned as well. Henry's sudden death had unsettled her greatly and with her father's health being so fragile she was much more wary of going for long periods without seeing him.

The king was fast asleep, he didn't even stir when she opened the door; Ella looked up from the book she was reading in the chair at his bedside, giving Snow a quiet smile.

"How is he?" the worried daughter questioned, keeping her voice low, so as not to disturb her father.

The blonde rested the volume in her lap, a finger saving her place. "Slowly improving, according to Doc." Blue eyes turned to the sleeping monarch. "He's been resting a lot, which is a good thing."

Snow nodded, gaze still on her father. "Are you going to be sitting with him all night?" Finally she turned to her friend.

"No, with the temperature dipping like it has been, Doc wants to be here at night to keep an especially close eye on him."

Worry creased the princess' brow as she came to stand beside the king.

Ella reached out to take her friend's hand, drawing her gaze. "He's doing well, Snow," she reiterated. "He's been gaining strength, day by day."

"I know," she sighed, rubbing a hand tiredly over her face, unable to erase the concern there.

The younger woman squeezed her hand. "Go get some sleep, Snow. Tomorrow is going to be a long, emotional day. You'll be able to sit with him as much as you like over the next few weeks."

Snow nodded, the ease of her acquiescence telling Ella just how tired the princess still was, she returned the affectionate grip before releasing it and bending down to brush the a kiss, lighter than a butterfly's wing, over her father's forehead. "Have Doc get me if there's any change."

"Of course," Ella assured her.

"Thank you." Snow's words were fervent and brought a responding smile to the blonde's face.

"I'm more than happy to."

Finally forcing herself from the room, Snow closed the door behind her and headed down the hall toward her own quarters, thinking to change and then head to James' room, not wanting to spend the night in an empty bed.

She gasped in surprise when she opened her door to find Prince Charming sitting on her bed, elbows resting on knees, hands loosely linked between them, waiting for her. His blue eyes met her emerald ones the moment she stepped through the doorway.

"Charming," she managed to breathe, barely having the presence of mind to close the door to avoid any possible passers-by seeing them together in her room.

"Snow," he greeted, a ghost of a smile flickering over his expression.

Her hands twisted nervously in front of her, she'd often imagined James with her in her room, but the reality sent her pulse racing in a still rather unexpected way and warmed her cheeks. It was unspeakably intimate having him in the room she'd grown up in, in many ways she felt like a teenager who'd snuck a boy up to her room like she'd heard some of the village girls talk of doing. "I hadn't expected to find you in here. I was going to go to your room after I changed…"

He'd already divested himself of his dark burgundy, suede doublet, it lay draped over the bench in front of her vanity. James reached into his shirt on the left side and withdrew a folded parchment, slowly he opened it. "A friend who was very concerned about you gave this to me shortly before dinner." He held it out to her. "They found it by accident, and felt I should see it."

Snow accepted the paper from him, a curious frown on her face, wondering what was on it that made him so grave. Her eyes dropped to the words, and she was instantly bowled over with memories of pain, anguish bleeding from every line on the parchment. The letter crumpled slightly as she pressed it against her abdomen, gaze on the floor. "You weren't meant to see this."

His eyes remained level on her. "You didn't mean for me to see it," James countered. "But I think I was meant to…that I had a right to." His hands clenched together. "Why didn't you tell me, Snow?"

"You were busy at home and I didn't want to bother you with silly nightmares." The emotions from that night hit her anew, she struggled to force them back, one of her hands automatically rising to pull out the ring from beneath her dress and spin it around her finger on the chain.

"From what that letter says and the way you're acting I somehow doubt that they're 'silly,'" he shot back grimly.

"I wasn't in danger." Her voice was weak even to her own ears, but she continued. "I didn't want you to feel like you had to rush here at the drop of a hat to soothe away my bad dreams. Not when you had more important things to do."

"Snow," frustration was thick in his tone, he bowed his head, hands clenching and unclenching, "when are you going to understand that nothing is more important to me than you?"

"Your father and your kingdom–"

"My father and I have issues that we're working out, but that doesn't hold a candle to you. My kingdom…" James shook his head. "I don't care about becoming a king, the kingdom survived long before me and it will carry on just fine without me."

"Charming…" Wide green eyes were unable to look away from him, even as tears began to sting the corners of them.

"I've been working with Thomas to make arrangements for the possibility that Midas might take offense." His cerulean gaze was unwavering on her. "I'll abdicate, insist on father disowning me entirely if necessary, then Midas can no longer take offense with my kingdom and I will certainly hardly be worth the effort. Thomas has spoken with Ella and she has agreed that, if necessary, they can become engaged sooner so that Midas won't turn his attention to my brother. He will become the heir to Seaborn's throne and I will be free to marry you."

Her heart was turning over in her chest at all he'd done and was willing to do just so that he could be with her. Snow swallowed hard around the lump in her throat.

"I'm more than willing to disappoint and anger my father and abandon my right to the throne because all I want is to be with you." His words were passionate, earnest, gaze mirroring his voice. "You're all I want and need in this world."

A tear finally escaped down Snow's cheek, it took all of her concentration to keep her legs from giving out from under her at the raw passion and love in his gaze.

"You were angry with me in Lochdubh because I didn't talk to you, because I didn't discuss important things with you that affected both of us." Pain flashed in his blue eyes. "But you just did the exact same thing. In trying to spare me the pain of hearing how you were suffering through what were obviously terrible nightmares, you actually hurt me more."

That was a kick to her stomach. "I didn't want you to worry when you couldn't be here…"

"Snow," he slowly shook his head, "it hurts more finding out after the fact that you were in such agony and I did nothing. If you had told me I at least could have written, I would've of course tried to visit, but if something had prevented me from being here in person I could've at least offered what comfort I could through writing. But I did nothing."

"It wasn't your fault," she tried to reassure him.

"Snow, in my mind, you're already my wife," her heart skipped a beat at hearing him call her that, "and in my world that means I do everything in my power to keep you from hurting. I don't mean to belittle your own abilities, you're very capable of taking care of yourself, but I love you and every instinct I possess tells me to protect you, to be there for you in any way I can if you're hurting. Even if it's just nightmares.'"

Tears streamed down her face as she moved to the fire, staring into the flames but not seeing them, still clutching the letter, which was now wrinkled and creased beyond repair, to her stomach. "I'm sorry."

"Promise me you won't keep something like this from me again?" Pain strained his voice. "I don't think my heart could take it."

Snow turned to face him. "I promise." Her eyes dropped to the floor again, unable to take the pain and disappointment in his gaze, she turned back to the fire, trying to get lost in the ever-shifting light from it.

Strong arms wrapped around her from behind, drawing her back against her beloved Charming's chest; her eyes slid shut at his lips pressing to her temple.

"I love you, Snow." The words rumbled from his chest into her ear. "I will love you for all eternity. As soon as you're out of the morning period I will return and place my mother's ring on your finger. I will declare to the whole world that you're mine and I'm yours, now and forever."

"I love you too," she whispered, voice shaking badly at him telling her just what she'd said she needed to hear in the letter, body leaning into the comfort and strength of his.

"Tell me about the dreams?"

There was a beat of silence.

"We were in a castle we called ours, though I did not recognize it. I'd just given birth…"


Cinnamon hot chocolate if you can guess where the title of the chapter comes from. :-D I hope that you guys liked it! I've been so excited for Maleficent's arrival, and for our first real look into Aurora's thoughts and Regina's. Please let me know what you think! Thank you for reading!

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